It’s the Little Things (that make a BIG difference)
Here are 5 reasons young adults want to stay in the church
By: Josh Denhart
Josh Denhart is a seasoned educator and former high school chemistry teacher. A children’s pastor for 10 years, Josh melded his love for science and Christ to create “The Amazing Chemistry Show”—a traveling gospel-centered stage show with fire, explosions and foam.
Prepare to be alarmed.
Studies show 75 percent of kids who are part of a strong evangelical church will leave the church and any connection to Christ from ages 18-29. Ponder that.
On a Sunday morning at our church we have a room of 100 first- through third-graders. If this statistic holds true, 75 of those kids, when they graduate from high school, will discontinue any affiliation with a local church and not pursue a relationship with Christ. But let’s make it even more personal. I have four kids. If these stats are true, one of my four kids will stay and three will not pursue a relationship with Jesus once they leave our home.
Yet, the real question to ask is, “What was being done right with the 25 percent who stayed?”
Prepare to be alarmed again.
Research shows five things were true of the 25 percent who did not abandon a relationship with Christ from ages 18-29:
- They ate dinner five of seven nights a week as a family.
- They served with their families in a faith-based ministry.
- They were entrusted with responsibility in a ministry at a young age.
- They had at one spiritual experience in the home during the week.
- They had one adult in their lives, other than their parents, who believed the same thing as their parents.
Let’s look more closely at each of these factors and why they can make the difference between young adults staying or leaving the church.
Factor #1: Ate dinner five of seven nights a week as a family
There is startling evidence to support a correlation between lowered negative behaviors and the simple act of eating dinner together. Dinner seems to matter…quite a bit!
According to Dr. Bill Doherty, director of marriage and family therapy at the University of Minnesota, “Research shows that the most important thing a child can do to assure long-term well-being is to eat meals with his or her family. The more meals together, the better!”
Similarly, a finding by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse states that “a revival of the family dinner in America will do more to curb kids from smoking, drinking and using drugs than any law or public health campaign.”
Create a daily rhythm. My wife Sarah is the champion for relational connectedness at dinner. She created the daily rhythm and expectation for connection during our family dinnertime. Without fail, she leads our family in asking two simple but probing questions: “What was the best part of your day?” and “Was the most challenging part of your day?” If a one-word answer is submitted, Sarah brings a follow-up question: “Why was that the best part of your day?”
It is about the connection not the location. Someone may say in hopeless resignation, “We never eat at home around our dinner table!” Hope is not lost, because it’s about connection with your family not the location where that connection happens. A busy mom with an involved family might find herself driving kids over the dinner hour. The same intentional connectivity that happens around my dinner table can happen around the bucket seats of her minivan. It is about connection.
Have you encouraged families with the power of eating together? It can be as simple as reminding them of this powerful value.
Factor #2: Served with their families in a faith-based ministry
There is a unique and indescribable bond that takes place when families partner with God to serve and share the gospel. It is powerful for families to personally witness God providing in unexpected and powerful ways. Their testimonies are real, gained through personal experience. Here are three ways to create that bond.
Modeling. A main motivation for family service is modeling. Families who have been active in serving can create a well-worn path for their children to follow for years to come. A dedicated mom who served with her daughter for years asked, “Which came first, our initial service as a family or my daughter’s desire to serve her local church at college?” Modeling precedes independent pursuit nearly every time.
Connectedness. Serving breeds deeper relationships with those you serve with. The mom I just mentioned also shared: “I have an increased confidence that when serving kids leave our homes they will seek out a church where they can plug in and serve. What a thrill to get hugs in the hallways from young kiddos who know us from serving. Our girls see themselves as role models for these children.”
Ownership. Children who have been given jobs to do in the local church take great pride in fulfilling their responsibilities. The job may have start with filling cups for snack time but can grow to running the sound system or leading a group activity. Their confidence in their roles will blossom as we increase their responsibilities and opportunities. Kids feel needed.
Does your church have opportunities for families to serve together? Then invite families! You will be surprised at the outcome.
Factor #3: Entrusted with responsibility in ministry at a young age
I created a service-based ministry called Route 56 in which fifth- and sixth-graders could actually become integrated into the service roles of our church where they could taste for themselves that God is good—through serving. My intuition told me that kids have had enough sitting and listening. “Let’s not have them learn about the body of Christ, I told myself. “Let’s have them actually be a part the body of Christ and do something.” Here’s what we entrusted them with.
Sharp cutting tools (why not!). Our first project was labor-intensive yardwork on the church property. We set out to cut down hundreds and hundreds of day lilies in the 31 parking lot islands at our church. Working in teams, 75 fifth- and sixth-grade students were handed sharp cutting tools and descended on the church parking lot. It felt like pure chaos; but they did it. The emotional response from the kids was beyond what I ever thought possible. They were hooked.
Cleaning nursery toys. So we tried it again. This time with students hand-cleaning thousands of nursery toys in one night. With the distinct aroma of diluted Lysol solution in the air, a “joyful buzz” hovered above each room. Again, it was chaotic; yet a humongous task at our church was completed in under an hour. But best of all, a fifth-grade girl named Brooke asked excitedly, “What else can we do to serve!” She wanted more.
Easy Is Not Always Best
Having kids feel like they have a responsibility and can contribute to the mission of the church is extremely important. However, it would be so much simpler for me, the children’s pastor, to have them sit and listen to another cute sermonette. Coordinating a small army of children to be contributors, not just consumers, took work. It’s not easy to find ways for kids to serve in the church. It’s chaotic. It’s noisy. They may not do it “the best.” To have 75 kids successfully pull off a project for the church takes tons of preparation before the kids ever show up. Seriously, it would be easier just do it ourselves, right? Yet, easy may not be best.
Does your church have opportunities for kids to be entrusted with ministry? (Start small.)
Factor #4: Had one spiritual experience in the home during the week
So many dads think their lack of biblical knowledge disqualifies them from leading their children spiritually. They may say, “I can’t lead spiritually. That is not me!” Question: Can you lead your family spiritually if you are not a Bible scholar? Answer: Yes, you can! Here are a few ways you can.
Learn from a kid’s Bible. When my wife and I started having kids, I began to read my kids’ children’s Bible to them each night. I learned more through that process than I ever thought possible. I knew quite a lot about the Bible before having kids. However, I was quite surprised at how much I learned from simply reading a children’s Bible to my kids.
If you can read… . If you can read, you can lead. You may not know the Bible well. I completely understand. Jump in and chronologically read a children’s Bible to your kids. You’ll be surprised by what you will learn. The grand and overarching story of the Bible will begin to come into focus not only for your children, but also for you, the parent, as well!
The power of pajamas. An amazing transformation happens when our kids are in their pajamas. For some reason, kids are more open to love, discussion and instruction after they are in their PJs. These amazing moments, though fleeting, are ripe for opportunity. Kids just seem to listen and learn at bedtime. Listen, if you can read, you can lead! Start small. Start tonight.
Does your church equip parents to effectively lead with quality children’s Bibles? Buy some and give them away!
Factor #5: Believing Mentors
There is an unmistakable benefit that a child gains from a believing mentor. Ask any parent of a teenager (umm…I am one) and they will tell you our parental influence dramatically decreases after puberty hits. Our ability to influence our children simply because we can say, “I am the parent,” quickly evaporates at age 13.
Someone cooler than you. However, there is great power when someone cooler than you begins to reinforce all the things you have been modeling, sharing and teaching the previous 13 years. This other believing voice is a critical component in shaping and sustaining your child’s future relationship with Jesus. From the day our children are born they are on a consistent path of greater and greater independence. It’s just that when they hit puberty, this hunger for independence appropriately skyrockets. It is during this painful time of familial rejection that a believing mentor can help to bridge the gap for you.
Set the stage early. Preschool small-group leaders, high school helpers and close family friends can set the stage during the elementary years for trusting a mentor during junior high and high school. The consistency of a Sunday school teacher in the third grade can pre-set the conditions for a godly mentor to enter the scene when the relationship with mom and dad falters. Start small. Start young.
Does your church have a systemic action plan to connect kids with other believing adults?
There Are No Magic Levers
These five factor are not an elixir for making “everything to be OK.” There is no perfect formula or panacea. Trust me, if there were a lever to be pulled, it would have been pulled by now, and we would not be having this conversation. We need the Holy Spirit. We need God’s help. Ultimately, this is His work. But, I believe we have a role to play. It comes down to intentional engagement.